Dr. Kazdin gave me a very similar message, but I asked him, “What if your child never does the positive opposite behavior, such as making eye contact when greeting people?” Dr. Kazdin said that the secret in that case was to use something called “differential reinforcement.” This is where you find a behavior that is close to the behavior you are trying to get and positively reinforce that behavior. For example, Dr. Kazdin said, “In the example of your child avoiding eye contact, when you go in a room together, ask them to look up. Or say ‘I bet you can’t look up.’ Then, when they do look up, say something like ‘Nice job looking up, that was great’ and smile and give them a pat on the shoulder.” If you keep doing this every time your child looks up, Dr. Kazdin said, he will start to do so more often. And any time you “catch” him making eye contact, positively reinforce that, too. Eventually, you will have more eye contact and less looking at shoes.
Another technique that experts agree on is that, since children tend to enjoy games, it is possible to use games to improve behavior in a fun way that still gets results. In the example of a child eating peas with her fingers, Dr. Kazdin proposed turning it into a contest. “Tell them ‘we’re going to have a game. The winner is the person who can put one pea on their fork and put it up to their lips the slowest. I’ll show you.’
“Then playfully model slowly lifting a pea to your lips on the fork. As soon as your child does it, praise them to reinforce the behavior. Then after the game is over, don’t mention it the rest of dinner.”
I reached out to Jane McGonigal, a best-selling author, game designer, and the director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future. “As a parent, when I’m trying to influence my child’s behavior, I would leverage one of the phenomena we see in gaming, which is that kids love being better at their favorite video games than their parents,” she said.
“So, I would create a game where I would ask my kid to help me do the thing I want them to do. I would ask them to try to spot me not using my fork and eating with my fingers, or to notice if I’m not looking someone in the eye,” she added, “and I would enlist their cooperation in this way and turn it into a multiplayer game where they know more than me and they are helping me. This would give me the chance to model for them why the behavior matters, by thanking them and explaining why I want help remembering.
“Basically, instead of trying to directly change the behavior and telling them what to do, let them experience the fun of ‘owning’ the behavior and being in charge of telling me what to do.”
Since learning more about the science of behavior change, I have been hesitant to give up scolding because it’s easy for me and automatic. But I have been trying positive reinforcement more with my own children and have been thrilled with the results.